Why Pianists Care About The Steinway Sale
Ever since the announcement last month that Steinway Musical Instruments agreed to sell itself to the hedge-fund firm Paulson & Co. for five hundred and twelve million dollars, panicked piano lovers have been voicing their concerns. “The wolves have won again,” one posted. “America takes another slap in the face from Wall Street.” Another wrote, “Whatever his interest in Steinway is, it’s probably not musical.” While some Internet commenters expressed hope that Paulson would be a good shepherd of the company, others predicted that the instruments would change for the worse—that Steinways would be built by machines, or outsourced to other countries where labor comes cheaper. On his blog, the cultural commentator Norman Lebrecht pronounced Steinway “in its death throes.”
Steinway has an ardent following among musicians and collectors. Volumes have been published on the company’s history, detailing its manufacturing practices, and cataloguing every known Steinway variety. Fans exchange notes on the tonal quality of particular models and years of manufacture the same way oenophiles compare vintages. It’s uncommon for a concert pianist to perform on anything other than a Steinway.
Steve Cohen, a piano dealer and consultant to piano manufacturers, stated that some Steinway fans would have preferred a different buyer. “People are a little more concerned with this particular purchase because Paulson as a company has no connection to the music industry,” he said. Some are afraid that Paulson will relocate manufacturing operations so it can sell the valuable Long Island City property on which the Steinway factory is located, and that the quality of the instrument will suffer as new workers learn skills that Steinway’s craftspeople have honed over decades. Others worry that Paulson will tinker with the manufacturing process in an attempt to reduce costs.
Concerned Steinway devotees point to the period following Steinway’s sale to CBS in 1972 as an example of how things could go wrong. CBS demanded more productivity from Steinway and made changes on the factory floor to that end, despite resistance from workers and management. Fans complained about a decline in quality; while some Steinway aficionados think manufacturing improved under subsequent owners—Steinway changed hands again in 1985 and 1995, eventually going public in 1996—others believe the instruments never fully recovered.
To understand why the piano community cares so deeply about the way Steinways are manufactured, it helps to understand the process—a remarkable example of handcraftsmanship in an age of mass production. The 2007 film “Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037,” produced and directed by Ben Niles, documents the manufacture of a single Steinway grand piano over almost a year. In an early scene, a wood technologist from Steinway travels to a lumberyard in Sitka, Alaska, where he examines the stock with the care of a gourmet chef choosing ingredients. Each Steinway requires several kinds of lumber, writes Miles Chapin, a great-great grandson of the founder Henry Steinway, in his book “88 Keys: The Making of a Steinway Piano”: birch for the hammers, sugar maple for the rim, and Sitka spruce for the soundboard, among other varieties.
At Steinway’s Long Island City factory, the film shows a team of six bending the rim—a twenty-two-foot plank formed from eighteen thin layers of maple—around a mold to form that familiar piano shape: a deep U with a hump on one side, to house the highest octaves in the keyboard. The rim stays in position for twenty-four hours, and then it moves to a climate-controlled warehouse—the conditioning room—where it spends the next two months.
Later, the rim goes to a case maker, who assembles the wooden skeleton that will support the piano’s “harp,” the cast-iron plate through which the strings are run. The harp, which weighs three hundred and forty pounds, must sustain the forty thousand pounds of tension necessary to keep the strings in tune. Another employee fits the harp; a craftsman uses a chisel to score the soundboard to accommodate the strings; the harp and soundboard are lowered into the case; the stringer hand-threads the strings through hundreds of pins. Next, a worker makes initial adjustments to the strings’ tension, a process known as “chipping.” Then, using a gentle flame, the “grand finisher” burns thin layers of felt from the hammerheads to make sure they are properly aligned with the strings. Finally, the young piano is delivered to the pounding room for its hazing: all eighty-eight keys hammered simultaneously with a mechanical device like something dreamed up by Dr. Terwilliker.
The final stage involves nine separate tunings in the course of a month; with each tuning the sound becomes more refined. The last step is executed by a “master voicer,” who manipulates the tone from each key until the piano is ready to meet the pianist who will, as James Baldwin wrote in “Sonny’s Blues,” “fill it, this instrument, with the breath of life, his own.”
When a piano finds its player, it becomes a partner in the creation of art. “It spoke to me immediately,” says the classical pianist Hélène Grimaud of the Steinway L1037, which she plays at the end of “Note by Note”; when you listen to Grimaud play Rachmaninoff, you sense a continuity between the life of the instrument in the factory and on the stage, some psychic fibre that connects the hands of the craftsman and the hands of the musician. Piano aficionados worry not just about the survival of Steinway but the survival of the Steinway, an instrument built a particular way, out of which a pianist can coax a particular sort of life.
In a statement released on August 15th, John Paulson, the president of Paulson & Co., expressed his admiration for Steinway’s legacy. Though not a pianist, he owns three Steinway grands, and has plans to purchase a fourth. “We intend to champion each of the attributes that make Steinway a unique company: its highly trained and skilled employees, perfected manufacturing processes, unwavering commitment to quality, revered global brand name, and dedication to partners, customers, artists and music lovers,” he wrote.
Steinway’s fans received similar reassurances in 1972. In “Steinway & Sons,” a detailed history of the company, Richard K. Lieberman quotes Walter Gunther, then the director of Steinway’s Hamburg operations, who promised that CBS would “guarantee the continuity of the Steinway tradition not only in regards to cultural, but also to economical aspects.” William Paley, the chairman of CBS at the time, swore he would “put quality first,” Lieberman writes. Despite Paulson’s statement, some Steinway devotees still believe profit-driven decisions could imperil the craftsmanship they value.
This fear may be unfounded. Steinway sold itself to CBS after years of dwindling profits and managerial discord. Paulson, by contrast, is buying the firm in a period of relative stability. Steinway’s sales collapsed during the recession, forcing layoffs at its New York factory, but Julie Theriault, Steinway’s director of corporate planning and communications, stated that the company has “turned the corner.” Sales are beginning to recover; the company recently paid off its debts and has plenty of cash on hand.
Steinway’s manufacturing process is expensive; the company has experienced the same high labor costs that have led so many American manufacturers to pursue cheaper options overseas, and many of the instrument’s parts require specific varieties of lumber, regardless of cost. But Steinway, with its dominant position in the high-end piano market, has considerable pricing power; according to Theriault, the company has been able to raise its list prices annually, preserving profits even in periods of rising costs.
What’s more, Paulson seems to see value in the Steinway manufacturing process. “Paulson has been very clear: he does understand that it’s a handmade product where if you damage the brand reputation that would be a bad mistake,” Arnold Ursaner, an analyst at CJS Securities. Ursaner expects that any future cost-cutting efforts will focus on Steinway’s band-instrument division, where Steinway has been negotiating with labor unions.
John Cavanaugh, the executive director of piano technology at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, began working as a technician for Steinway dealers in 1986, receiving additional training at the Steinway factory before arriving at Oberlin, an All-Steinway School, in 2001. He stated that no one else builds a piano like Steinway. While other manufacturers have converted to machine-driven processes that can yield a hundred pianos every day, Steinway handcrafts a fraction of that number, using many of the same tools and techniques from a century ago. “They’re not out there to build pianos that sound the same; that’s what Yamaha does,”. “Yamaha makes beautiful instruments, but the benchmark for success is uniformity.” With Steinway, he said, “you’re getting a high quality instrument, but they have distinctive characteristics that make you choose one over the other.”
Cavanaugh is fielding questions from many concerned musicians. “It brings out a lot of panic in people who love it so much, whenever there’s a major change or a major development,” he said.
Yet, despite some qualms about the idea of a hedge fund taking ownership of the company for the first time, Cavanaugh is relatively sanguine about the sale. He’s seen Steinway pass through multiple owners over the past couple of decades, and he’s become “desensitized” to such transfers. He is also reassured by Steinway’s promises that the manufacturing process won’t change.
While American demand for grand pianos has begun to recover from a recession-era low, Steinway still faces changing cultural tides. In 1926, Steinway sold six thousand two hundred and ninety-four pianos, a record that still stands; in 2012 it sold just over two thousand. Paulson’s stated intentions for the company seem to reflect this: he wrote in a statement that he hopes to increase piano sales not only in Steinway’s traditional market but in “underpenetrated markets in Asia, Eastern Europe and South America.” Steinway fans will surely continue to watch and worry, but they may take some comfort in this: Paulson promises not to change the piano that they love. He simply wants to sell more of them.